Priest: End of the World, Part Two

Priest Onesheet

From the front of my house I can see up the road about half a mile and down the road about half a mile. I can even see a bend of the Missouri River. And a good chunk of the sky. But that’s about all I can see. No Rapture. It’s been raining a lot lately. My suitcases are like wet cardboard. I tried to get back into my house, but the new owners seem to think it’s theirs now. Nobody’s coming for me. Not even Reverend Campy. It may not be the end of the world, but it’s sure the end of my world! Of course, the lines for the Rapture are guaranteed to be longer than the lines for the rehabbed Star Wars ride at Disneyland, so maybe I should just wait a bit longer. It’s just that there’s a curb-shaped indentation in my butt, and I just wish the neighbors would stop laughing at me.

To kill some time, I thought I’d take myself to see Priest, another good-vs.-evil movie, this time with vampires instead of devils. I went to a new theater in a newish shopping center in Omaha. Besides the movie theater, there’s an upscale bar, a natural foods restaurant, a cupcake bakery, and a crowded farmers’ market. Don’t these people know the world is ending?

Before the movie, they showed the usual string of commercials, including the new Honda Civic ad where the Ninja girl jumps off her balcony and through the sunroof into her Civic, driving it away. The words “Do not attempt” appear at the bottom of the screen. Really? I mean, seriously? Who has to be told that it’s probably not a good idea to jump off a building into your car, even if it has a sunroof? Is this the world we live in, one where people have to be told the obvious? I hope whatever happens in the Rapture, I don’t end up with the dopes who need to be told this. Or has it already happened, and am I stuck with them? Could it be that I’m one of the dopes? Nahhh!

“There has always been mankind, and there have always been vampires,” Christopher Plummer intones as the movie begins. Except he very quickly points out to our hero, Paul Bettany, that there are no more vampires, that they were all eradicated or sealed up inside hives. The warrior priests who eradicated them have been forced into menial jobs and are shunned by the populace, mostly because of the big brown crosses tattooed between their eyes. Despite the claim that there are no more vampires, people are forced to live inside walled cities that resemble prisons.

Like the priest and seminarian in The Exorcist and The Rite, Bettany’s character has questions, doubts—not about his faith, necessarily, but about what the Church has told him: “To go against the Church is to go against God.” That is, if the Church says there are no vampires, then there are no vampires, even if a vampire head rolls right up to your feet. Why is the Church so dead set against the obvious? Well, I guess we’ll see in the sequel.

In the future, the Church is more like an armed militia. The cross is inscribed inside a circle, making it look more like a gun sight than a symbol of faith. And, when needed, the cross transforms into a ninja throwing star. Something Dustin Hoffman might have made good use of at the end of The Graduate.

Our boy Bettany scowls throughout the movie as if he were doing an impression of Clint Eastwood. He learns that his niece has been kidnapped by the vampires whose existence the Church denies. It’s Mad Max meets The Searchers. As this lame recycling lumbers from one set-piece to another, you realize that Bettany’s scowling because he’s had to take on another quasi-religious end-of-the-world comic book movie (see–or rather, don’t see–Legion).

Karl Urban plays the best friend/nemesis with a lot of scowling and scraping of fingernails, which you see a lot of in The Rite, too. I guess when you see a character scrape his nails, you know he’s really really evil. And if that’s not a giveaway, Urban wears a black hat and utters lines like “If you’re not committing sin, you’re not having fun.”

The movie also has a gaggle of vampires, looking a little like eight-foot eyeless lizards that have been turned inside-out given mouths like a northern pike’s. You can almost see the 1’s and 0’s of the underlying computer coding. They have less personality than the targets in a carnival game. They’re all teeth and gooey skin, but they’re no real match for our priest. They’re there to be sliced and diced.

In short, this Priest can’t be forgiven its sins.

P.S. Reverend Campy, are you out there? Campster-man? You owe me! As a motivated seller, I took a loss on my house, my suitcases and clothes are ruined, and now that paradise is off the table, I’m kind of bored with this old world. You promised me a chance at salvation! Or is everyone gone, and am I the only one left? Come to think of it, there were only two other people in the theater! I missed the Rapture! In that case, why did I bother writing about Priest? Heck, if I’m one of the last people on Earth, why did I bother even going to Priest?

The Rite: End of the World, Part One

The Exorcist Oneshet

Well, I started this post with a scant twenty-four hours before the end of the world, at least according to some, and that got me thinking about good and evil, so I thought it might be a good time to think about the battle between God and the devil.

The Exorcist has lost a lot of its shock-value since it first hit theaters in 1973. The special effects have a DIY feel to them, and the language and theme feel fairly tame compared to recent movies on the subject of demonic possession. Actually, you’d probably find more shocking elements in a Judd Apatow comedy than in The Exorcist. I expected all that when I settled down to watch it again. What I didn’t expect was how polished the movie is, how subtle, how quiet—at least for a while. The most interesting part of the movie turns out to be the slow build-up—Father Merrin in the mysterious desert, the small but creepy indications that something is not quite right with young Regan, and Father Karras’s persistent doubt. For a good forty minutes or more, you’d think you’d stumbled into something like John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt. It has more drama than horror. Once the all-out bed-bucking, head-swiveling, and soup-spewing take place, I lose interest. The movie suddenly goes simple. You know you’ve lost an argument when you find yourself screaming. And that’s what so many mainstream movies do these days, each one trying to top the last. According to the preface to Lyrical Ballads, “the human mind is capable of being excited without the application of gross and violent stimulants,” but clearly Wordsworth and Coleridge haven’t seen, for instance, Robert Rodriguez’s Machete, where the hero uses his enemy’s intestine to rappel down the side of a building.

The Rite Onesheet
The Exorcist wasn’t the first movie about demonic possession, but it may have been the first with such high production values. The Omen came along in 1976 with no less a production value than Gregory Peck in a leading role. “A” leading role but not “the” leading role, because the devil is the true star of these movies. And since those days, every now and again, Old Bendy makes an appearance, most recently in The Rite, a movie that owes so much to The Exorcist that it should pay a royalty. Anthony Hopkins plays the soft-spoken exorcist with a nod toward Max Von Sydow. Colin O’Donoghue plays the Jason Miller part, this time out as a seminarian who’s called upon to perform a ritual for a faith he no longer embraces.

True to B-movie form, the makers of The Rite claim the movie is based on true events, reminding you of this at the end with brief descriptions of the characters’ fates. And there is some truth to the claim. The book on which the movie’s based is a non-fiction account of a California priest’s training as an exorcist. The course he took in Rome wasn’t enough for him, so he apprenticed himself to a practicing exorcist, as the character in the movie does. And it’s true that some in the Catholic Church have called for a new militancy against evil. In 2007 the Vatican did call for an exorcist to be placed in every diocese. All of these elements come into play in The Rite.

Like The Exorcist, the best parts of The Rite are the quiet confrontations between the devout priest who has come to believe also in the existence of the devil and the doubting Thomas who studies the rite only as a favor to his mentor. The younger man, played as if the actor were channeling Jim Caviezel, isn’t sure he believes in God, so it goes without saying that he also doesn’t believe in the devil. But as Hopkins points out, “Choosing not to believe in the devil won’t protect you from him.”

The movie plays out in predictable ways. I won’t spoil it by giving them away here, but you already know the moves this movie makes. Interestingly, the actual confrontations between good and evil aren’t as theatrical as they might have been, perhaps because the movie-makers felt they had to reflect the reality of what happened in the real events upon which the movie is based. What keeps your attention are the debates between the Hopkins and O’Donoghue characters, which are reminiscent of the debates between Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs.

It’s surprising that the subject of exorcism would prove to be so enduring in movies. The fight between good and evil is difficult to depict on screen. It always seems to boil down to a shouting match, with the priest shouting prayers and the foul fiend blaspheming loudly until he’s forced to say his name, which somehow expels him from his victim. This kind of showdown happens so often that you wonder why the devil doesn’t change it up a little. Instead of possessing a young girl, how about an NFL linebacker, somebody who can’t be so easily strapped to a chair or bed by an aged cleric? And why so touchy about the name? Vampires have spent years figuring out ways around their limitations, and yet the same tired trick catches Old Nick every time. And, dude, what’s with all the levitation and contortion and spewing of nails, etc.? You’re the Prince of Darkness, not a sideshow freak. I mean, it’s so, well, Gaga! Just saying.

P.S. Well, it’s Saturday, May 21st, at about 4:00 p.m., around two hours until the scheduled Rapture. Glad I got this post up before the end. Well, two hours from now here in the Central Time Zone. One hour EST. Which are we to follow? Or is it west coast time? After all, that’s the home of Reverend Camping, who’s been predicting the end of days. And why assume it’s 6:00 p.m. in the U.S.? Shoot! Has the eternity train already left the station? Have I missed the Rapture? The end of the world is so confusing! Is it possible I packed all these bags for nothing? Dang! All dressed up and no place to go.